Different Types of Yoga & Their Benefits: A Breakdown for Beginners.

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When most of us think of yoga, we imagine rolling out a yoga mat and practicing a series of body postures, which are called asanas in the yoga tradition. This is not an incorrect interpretation, however, the system of yoga is much broader than the asanas themselves. 


Yoga, which means union, is a system of self-realization of which asanas are only a tiny part. In fact, although the system of yoga is more than 2,000 years old, it wasn’t until the 1930s that the yoga postures we practice today started circulating as a new tradition. Inspired by colonial British gymnastics conditioning and a new morality of physical fitness, Indian teacher Krishnamacharya developed sequences of postures to develop the muscles and range of motion of the body. Two of his students, B.K.S. Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois, went on to develop their own styles of yoga in the mid 1900s. Hence the birth of modern yoga asana. 


Today there are hundreds of different styles of yoga. It seems as if every day new teachers come forward with different names for poses, theories of optimal movement, and unique goals for the asana practice. At this point, it would be impossible to list out and properly interpret the work of all of these teachers. And yet, most of these teachers were trained in classical styles of yoga that are directly or indirectly related to what Krishnamacharya passed down to his students.


This article breaks down the most common types of yoga classes you can expect to find online, at the gym or at your local studio. With each style offering different benefits, you will see how the classes are structured and what the goal for each style is. My hope is that with a little bit of context, you’ll feel confident dabbling in something new but not scary, something outside-your-comfort-zone but still accessible, something fun but not overwhelming. Let’s get into it!


Ashtanga Yoga 


Ashtanga yoga is a flowing style of yoga that links breath and movement together. 


Founded by Pattabhi Jois in the 1940s, Ashtanga yoga emphasizes the importance of not only the poses, but also the transitions between the poses. Students can often expect to sweat quite a bit in Ashtanga classes, as they move swiftly through full-body ranges of postures and hold positions for up to 10 breaths.


Traditionally, there are 6 series of postures in Ashtanga yoga, each one based on variations of the sun salutations: The primary series (series 1), the intermediate series (series 2), and the advanced series (series 3-6). These series are practiced in order and repeated until students are able to comfortably advance to higher series. Students of Ashtanga yoga often look to their teachers to determine their level of progress and to be assigned new series and poses to work on. 


Iyengar Yoga 


Iyengar, another student of Krishnamacharya and a contemporary of Pattabhi Jois, took a different approach to the physical practice. While Krishnamachary and Pattabhi Jois preferred a physically rigorous and fast-paced asana practice, Iyengar preferred a slower practice of static poses and props. 


An Iyengar yoga practice is often a slow and methodical approach to a series of yoga postures grouped by family. For example, one class may aim to develop the body for backbends, while another class may work towards a headstand or restorative forward folds. Each class offers a series of poses that are practiced diligently, one-at-a-time and for several minutes each. Students learn important muscular and energetic actions that can be repeated in other yoga poses, and often repeat poses multiple times in a class in order to teach the body proper form and function.


Yoga props are often used to make poses more accessible and to provide a specific sensory experience of each asana. In fact, it is quite common to hear an Iyengar teacher say before class, “Grab 6 blankets, 4 blocks, a strap, a bolster, a chair and a headstand stool if you’re not doing headstand on the head.” 


Hatha Yoga 


Hatha yoga is a general catch-all term for any yoga practice that involves body postures. Literally meaning effort or force, hatha yoga refers to a combination of physical effort and controlled breathing. In this way, hatha yoga is an umbrella term that covers all physical yoga styles beneath it. 


So what does it mean when you see hatha yoga listed on a class schedule? It could mean many things, but usually means a series of static postures performed one after the other. You may find elements of Ashtanga yoga, such as the sun salutations, and of Iyengar yoga, carefully using props to position the body in one pose at a time. 


Generally speaking, if a class is listed as hatha on a schedule or online, it often refers to a moderately paced class that is neither fast nor slow, allowing for all different kinds of learners to benefit and enjoy the practice. 


Vinyasa Yoga 


Sometimes called flowing yoga on studio schedules, vinyasa yoga is one of the most common types of yoga practiced today. 


A direct offshoot of Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga yoga, vinyasa yoga is designed around the sun salutations and other rigorous flowing sequences. Unlike Ashtanga yoga, vinyasa yoga is an open format of yoga, meaning that teachers can invent and teach their own sequences. This is in contrast to the more rigorous and repetitive format of Ashtanga, which is comprised of six non-changing series that students advance to, one to the next. 


Vinyasa yoga can be practiced in heated and non-heated environments, and almost every yoga teacher has had some background with vinyasa yoga, either through Ashtanga or a newer format of the flowing practice. 


Yin, Gentle & Restorative Yoga 


Gentle yoga is a format of yoga designed to be accessible for all bodies. A gentle yoga class often considers the needs of special populations such as seniors, those recovering from injuries, students with illnesses, pregnancy, or other special circumstances. 


There may be strength elements in a gentle yoga class, but the common emphasis is usually on ease, rest, stretching and breathing. For this reason, gentle yoga classes are a perfect way to enter the yoga practice as a beginner, or supplement for more rigorous fitness activities. 


Restorative yoga is an even lighter approach to yoga. An hour long class may only feature 5 or 6 restorative yoga postures, which are simple positions held for minutes at a time. In order to make the shape of poses both accessible and comfortable, students are often guided into postures with the use of props--blankets, bolsters, pillows, blocks and other items that reduce the body’s need to effort for the time of the pose. In this state of passivity, key internal body systems are restored, including the nervous system, the lymphatic system (drainage system), and other organ systems. 


Similar to restorative yoga, yin yoga is a passive practice designed to release the connective tissue in the body. Yin yoga specializes in energetic pathways and meridians, and often sequences poses according to how they impact different systems in the body. 


Kundalini Yoga


Equal parts physical workout and meditative activity, Kundalini yoga is called the yoga of awareness.


A typical 60-90 minute practice will include a short warm up followed by 30-45 minutes of kriyas, or  series of postures, which can often include running, jumping, breathing, dancing, chanting, and/or meditation. To end, there is usually an extended savasana (resting position) and guided meditation. 


Brought to America in the 1960s by Yogi Bhajan, Kundalini yoga’s approach is less aimed at physical fitness (although there is a component of this, too), and more aimed at communing with God. Students of Kundalini often cite a calm mind and stronger sense of self as reasons for practicing. 


Bikram Yoga 


Bikram yoga was founded by Bikram Choudhury and became popular in the 1960s. All classes are 90 minutes and are practiced in a heated environment, up to 104 degrees fahrenheit.


Bikram yoga consists of 26 mostly standing yoga postures that were patented into the Bikram series. For this reason, only accredited studios can officially teach Bikram yoga, which has inspired offshoots, such as Core Power Yoga’s Hot Power Fusion class. 


Other Types of Yoga 


There’s no way a 1,500 word article can detail the many ins and outs of all the different types of yoga and their benefits. One of the reasons for this is that every yoga teacher has a unique style of teaching, whether they brand that style as a new form of yoga or simply offer their interpretations in the classes they are teaching.


Nonetheless, there may be other styles of yoga you’ve heard of and are curious about. Here are a few additional more recent additions to the yoga style lineup, along with links for more information: Power yoga, Baptiste, Strala, Core-strength vinyasa, viniyoga, jivamukti yoga, and many more. 


As yoga becomes more popular, other types of yoga-inspired fitness are finding space in the market, including yoga dance, yoga and hiit, and much more. 


This variety ensures that there’s a fit for every color of interest, even if it means we need more education in order to find the right fit for us. In the end, yoga asana is all about trial and error: We find out what we like and don’t like mostly be accident. The important part is how our minds are engineered about the practice. An impactful yoga practice will help engineer the mind to move from a place of happiness and interest. 

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